Braves at Pirates Series Preview: Ahoy, Mateys!

Andrew McCutchen: rebuilding the Pirates all by himself.

The good ship Braves Country sails into a new port of call tonight for a 3-day series against the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pirates (18-23) have not been very good, but it has been more inconsistency than true putridity (the Disastros seem to have a monopoly on putridity this season). Just in the past week, they've beaten Roy Halladay, Randy Wolf, and Ryan Dempster. Of course, they've also lost to Chris Narveson and Kyle Kendrick, so who knows what's in store for this series.

The Pirates have swept the Cubs and the Reds in series this year... but they have also been swept by the Reds by a score of 16-1 and the Brewers by a score of 36-1 (including a 20-0 loss). They were even swept by the Astros--a truly remarkable accomplishment. With the Braves playing good baseball of late, a series win (or even a sweep) seems eminently doable.

Pitching Matchups

Friday, 7:00: Tim Hudson (4-1, 2.41) vs. Ross Ohlendorf (0-1, 3.00)

Huddy tries to continue his excellent season tonight against Ohlendorf, who is making just his 4th start of the year (the 3rd since returning from a back injury). In his last start, the 27-year-old righty gave up 2 runs in 6 innings to the Cubs. Despite his good 3.00 ERA, Ohlendorf has not pitched well so far this year. He's only gone 15 innings in his 3 starts, and has given up 11 hits and 10 walks in those innings (1.40 WHIP). The walks are especially worrisome, considering that he has struck out only 7 batters all year. These poor peripherals explain why Ohlendorf's FIP (5.05) and xFIP (6.55) are so much higher than his ERA. If he wants to keep up a decent ERA, he's going to have to strike out more and walk fewer. Let's hope that he doesn't start doing that tonight.

(The rest of the pitching matchups, the Stats of the Series, and an analysis of the Pirates' "rebuilding" project after the jump...)

Saturday, 7:00: Derek Lowe (5-4, 5.47) vs. Charlie Morton (1-7, 9.68)

Lowe has been pitching better lately, but even if he sucks tomorrow, he might stand a decent chance of getting a DerekLoweWin, because Morton, a 26-year-old righty, has had a rough time this year. He's been susceptible to big innings and has lasted 4 innings or less in half of his 8 starts. Still, despite giving up 38 earned runs in 35.1 innings, Morton actually has decent peripherals (arguably better than either Ohldendorf's or Duke's). His strikeout rate (7.64 K/9 innings) and walk rate (2.55 BB/9) are actually about league-average.

Charlie's problem has been extreme hittability, as he has given up an astonishing 52 hits (over 13 H/9) and 8 homers (over 2 HR/9). Many of those hits and homers can probably be attributed to bad luck or poor defense, as he is giving up a .389 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) and a 20.5% homer per fly ball rate (HR/FB). With average luck and defense, his ERA would look much better. His FIP is a merely bad 5.55, and his xFIP is actually pretty good--4.12. Charlie hasn't been good this year, but if the Pirates are patient with him (and really, they have no reason not to be patient), he'll be a decent 4th or 5th starter for them.

Sunday, 1:30: Kris Medlen (1-1, 2.45) vs. Zach Duke (3-4, 5.08)

Crabs Medallion makes his 3rd start of the year on Sunday against 27-year-old lefty Zach Duke. Duke is coming off a game in which he and the Pirates' bullpen outdueled Roy Halladay. Duke gave up 1 run on 6 hits in 6 innings, striking out 5 and walking 2. On the year, Duke has been a microcosm of the Pirates team. He's had 3 great starts of at least 6 innings, giving up 1 run or fewer in each. Unfortunately, he's also had 3 starts in which he's given up at least 5 runs in 5 or fewer innings. Who knows which Duke we'll see on Sunday? Let's hope for the bad Duke, to help us finish off a 3-game sweep.

Stats of the Series: 13-6, 108

Since ending their 9-game losing streak, the Braves are 13-6, tied for the 2nd best record in the NL over that stretch (the Dodgers are 15-4). Even better, the offense has scored 108 runs in those 19 games (5.7 runs/game), the most in the NL in that time. With Hinske playing more and every regular hitting decently in that stretch (except for Yunel Escobar), it sure looks as if Bobby Cox has hit on the right formula for this offense. And at 21-20, the Braves are now in the thick of the playoff race.

Note to the doomsayers--a 9-game losing streak in April does not mean the season is over.

Question of the Series: How do you rebuild without young players?

The Pirates are obviously not built to win in 2010. They traded away half their roster last year with the ostensible purpose of acquiring good young players to build around. Unfortunately, there seems to be a major flaw in that plan. Namely, the Pirates are not that young, and the young players they do have (with the glaring exception of Andrew McCutchen) are not that good.

Obviously, McCutchen is a piece to build around. He's the complete package, a true 5-tool player who is already the Pirates' best player (by far). Beyond him, however, there's not much to go on. Their only other good regulars are Ryan Doumit and Garret Jones, both of whom are 29. Most of their pitchers are 27 or older, meaning that they are unlikely to get any better or be at their peak when the Pirates are finally good again.

The minor league system is not that impressive, either. They do have slugging 3rd baseman Pedro Alvarez, but aside from him they don't have a single player who looks like he'll be a difference maker. Most of their other prospects (including the many that they got in last year's trades) are either old for their level, underperforming, or both. That includes former Braves farmhands Jeff Locke, who is off to a good start this year but is repeating high A at age 22, and Gorkys Hernandez, who has a sub-.500 OPS in AA.

At 23, Andrew McCutchen is the Pirates' youngest player. In fact, he's the only player on their active roster who is younger than 25 and one of only 5 players younger than 27. By comparison, the Braves have 4 players younger than 25 and 11 (!!!) players younger than 27. And that's without counting Jair Jurrjens, who is still only 24. Aside from McCutchen, here are the Pirates' 4 other youngsters:

  • Hayden Penn, 25, RP: has an ERA above 30.00 (that's thirty, not three) in 3 relief appearances
  • Charlie Morton, 26, SP: has an ERA above 9.00 in 8 starts
  • Jeff Clement, 26, 1B/C: hitting .188 / .240 / .333 in 105 PA as the Pirates' main first baseman
  • Andy LaRoche, 26, 3B: hitting .264 / .338 / .376 in 139 PA as the starting third baseman

That's not too promising. LaRoche could be a decent starter for the next few years, and Morton isn't as bad as his ERA, but that is hardly the core of a future contender. And none of those guys are young enough to think they have much development time left, either. At this point, the best that Pirates fans can hope for is that when management inevitably trades Duke, Ohlendorf, Doumit, Jones, and Paul Maholm, that they get some real prospects in return.

By the way, the Braves' players under 27 include: Heyward (20), Kimbrel (21), Hanson (23), Medlen (24), Jurrjens (24), O'Flaherty (25), Venters (25), and Prado (26). Our farm system also features Freddie Freeman and a load of excellent pitching prospects. I'd say that not only are the Braves better than the Pirates now, they have a much brighter future ahead, too. In other words, we are contending and rebuilding at the same time. It's good to be a Braves fan right now, folks!

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